The 2010-11 Indiana Pacers were a team that had talent, but they were going nowhere fast. Jim O’Brien, a good friend of Pacers team president Larry Bird, was losing the team, and Bird could see it. So, he made a tough decision — he let O’Brien go, leaving the team in the hands of a tough, defensive-minded assistant coach, Frank Vogel. It may have been Bird’s best move in his tenure as general manager.
But now, here they stand, struggling mightily against the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, lucky to leave their home court with the series even at one game a piece. These struggles have been culminating for two long months, finally resulting in the Pacers losing the home court advantage that they had worked so hard to achieve, and to a team that finished below .500 no less. This lies mostly on the shoulders of coach Vogel.
The Hawks present a difficult matchup, more difficult than their record would suggest. They don’t have a traditional dirty-work big man in the post thanks to Al Horford’s injury, so they rely mostly on shooting to stretch the floor. This puts Indiana at a disadvantage. Their starting frontcourt, David West and the slumping Roy Hibbert, aren’t quick and nimble enough to close out on Atlanta’s shooters. This means that Pero Antic and Paul Milsap can have their way from beyond the arc and from midrange, and both are pretty deadly when given an open shot.
The problem is that Vogel has not realized this fundamental mismatch. The Pacers’ starting lineup is vulnerable because Atlanta has shooters at all five positions, so they can live and die by the three instead of driving the ball into the paint (where the Pacers thrive defensively). Instead, Vogel is leaving Hibbert and West in for their usual long stretches instead of mixing and matching his roster to adjust to the Hawks’ style of play. This would be an ideal time for seldom-used forward Chris Copeland to provide some quality minutes, but Vogel refuses to unload him off the bench. Couple the frontcourt issues with George Hill’s reluctance to attack offensively, and there is a clear recipe for disaster.
Now, does Vogel deserve to get fired? Probably not. He has done a tremendous job forming an identity with the Pacers, and deserves a lot of credit for the foundation he has helped lay with this Pacers’ franchise. However, this series has been tough to watch so far, and there will always be a scapegoat. Fortuantely, for Vogel at least, it appears that Hibbert’s ineffectiveness has caught more attention than his coaching mistakes. If the Pacers fail to win this series, Bird will not be a happy camper, and someone is likely to get caught in the crossfire. All Vogel can hope is that it won’t be him.